Jens Petzold is a Swiss monk who heads a monastery in Erbil, Iraq for Iraqi-christian refugees who fled ISIS attacks on their towns last year. A former resident of the famous Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria, Petzold first came Iraq from Syria in 2011 in order to rebuild the abandoned monastery of Deir Maryam al-Adha. After the Islamic State started to attack Christian villages in Iraq this past summer, he became the sole caretaker of dozens of displaced families.
Petzold is a charismatic and unorthodox church congregation leader. This footage tries to show how a single person can make a big difference to many refugees as well as show how refugees from the Christian community try to get on with their daily lives, somehow trying to avoid leaving their homeland for good.
In August 2014, the Islamic State captured a number of Iraqi Christian towns in the area surrounding Mosul, among them Karakosh, the largest Iraqi city with a Christian majority. Most of its 50,000 residents fled within a couple of hours on the 6th of August and left most of their belongings behind. Right now more than 100,000 of the already shrinking population of Iraqi Christian community have become internally displaced or fled to other countries. While most of the IDPs have found refuge in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil and two large refugee camps near the city of Dohuk, a small monastery in Sulaimaniya opened its doors for more than 200 refugees who have now been living in this very crowded place for more than half a year. The monastery with its church and one building houses 80 people, nearby apartments another 100+ people. Almost 70 of them are children.
The author visited Sulaimaniya in March 2015. The entire footage was shot during that time. It includes interviews with Jens Petzold, several of the refugees, shows daily life in the monastery as well as a mass. I accompanied Jens Petzold during trips to the local market, to a Christian graveyard and to another local church community where they are raising funds to build new housing facilities.
- [0:00:00 - 0:01:10] Preparations for the evening mass [mix of Syrian Catholic & Chaldean rites] & funny remarks about the color of a priest’s cassock in Eastern Christendom. Petzold: The Christian Churches of the East don’t know any rules regarding the colors [of a priest’s cassock] but they now seem more and more to follow the example of the Vatican. A pity. The Eastern Churches used to allow every color imaginable - which is funny if you see representatives meet the pope while wearing every color of the rainbow. Quite a jolly thing to see.
- [0:01:10 - 0:02:41] Evening mass.
- [0:02:41 - 0:03:32] Preparing and distributing dinner.
- [0:03:32 - 0:05:17] Brief interview with Father Jens Petzold about the living conditions of the refugees. Very brief still shots of refugee living area inside the church. Petzold: How the refugees are housed? Here you can see curtains we have put up in the church and also in the other larger rooms. Every compartment belongs to a family. In the church live about 50 people right now, the two other rooms have 10 and 20 people. Petzold: Right now, we are at a critical point. The living situation in the church has not changed in 5 months. Some people have been living in the other rooms for 6 months. That is a critical point. We have more conflicts and now we need to work out a solution for the families to have some more privacy. Petzold: Children we have a lot of. 65 in total. And they go to school. From the very start, we organized an informal primary school. This is something we put big emphasis on.
- [0:05:17 - 0:06:12] Driving to the Christian cemetery of Sulaimaniya. Petzold: Right now, there is the threat that people give up hope, that they accept being here as a point of no return. There is a lot of work to be done so people can find jobs, so they can start making plans again - whatever these plans might include. I am against forcing them to stay in Iraq. If they want to leave, I want to prepare them properly - so they don’t flee but emigrate. That’s a small but important difference. We have a French school here, for those who want to go to France. They should take courses and get ready before they go. [0:06:12 - 0:07:09] Visiting the Christian cemetery of Sulaimaniya. Still shots of Jens Petzold, tombs & the city of Sulaimaniya. One brief morbid & funny remarks of Petzold about dead bodies he has to store in his monastery because the cemetery is not fully operational. Father Petzold: I really wish someone would finance the rebuilding of the small chapel and mortuary here at the cemetery. That way I would get rid of all the coffins that are piling up at my monastery. Otherwise I would have to open a coffin shop some day.
- [0:07:09 - 0:08:08] Visiting the local market with Father Petzold talking about buying food for the refugees. Several street scenes of vendors & cafes. Shots of KRG flag and patriotic gadgets. Father Petzold: This is the entry to the market of Sulaimaniya. On the left side, it’s a larger market where you can find food and almost everything else you might need.
- [0:08:08 - 0:09:30] Father Jens Petzold telling a funny story about how people from St. Joseph’s Church in Sulaimaniya stole the church bell of his monastery & some still shots of the monastery Journalist: There is no church bell in the tower, isn’t it? Father Petzold: Father Ayman [from St. Joseph’s church in Sulaimaniya] stole it. When I came back from Syria the last time, 36 hours by bus, I immediately went to bed - at that time I always slept at my office downstairs. I heard some people working on something here at the tower. I did not bother and when I woke up, the bell was gone. And where did it go - it’s now at St. Joseph’s. That’s another project I am working on right now. I really want a new church bell. A nice sounding one.
- [0:09:30 - 0:10:35] Interview with a refugee from Karakosh about his life in the monastery & his plans for the future Ronny Louis, 26 years old, refugee at Deir Maryam Monastery in Sulaimaniya He always mentions Hamdaniyya, the name of his district in the city of Karakosh - replaced this with Karakosh because only the city name is used in the media. He fled Karakosh for the second time on August 6th after the Peshmerga gave up the city after an ISIS offensive had started. Within two hours, the entire city was deserted. Ronny: Most left their belongings, all their money, their jewelry behind in Karakosh. They took only clothes and things necessary for survival. Ronny: Some people did not notice the attack and did not flee because they were asleep. These few people were left behind and became prisoners of the Islamic State. Ronny: Around 50 young people were left behind and we still have no news about their fate. Ronny: We are very thankful to Father Jens for offering us his church and for taking care of us. But the housing facilities here obviously have many problems: there is only a single bathroom for all the refugees and no separate room for all the children. Five families are sitting in the same room. Ronny: Right now, we have no hope left. Us younger people have no idea what kind of future we will have. We don’t know if we will ever be able to return home, have a regular job. After a year here in Sulaimaniya, nothing has become clearer for our future. It is still unknown.
- [0:10:35 - 0:11:06] Two voluntary teachers offer the kids some basic kind of education and entertainment.
- [Now follows a longer interview with Father Jens Petzold regarding his personal history and motivation to take care of the refugees. For a short news piece this information might now be relevant but it paints a very interesting and colorful picture of this powerful human being. Use it either as background information or see it as my attempt to convince you to give this story more airtime.] [0:11:06 - 0:12:59] Father Petzold: For my mission here the existence of an authentic Christian community is also of great importance. It is important to preserve Eastern Christianity. Large parts of the Bible were written in Iraq, many people still speak Aramaic, or Surez as it is called locally, a language that reaches far into the life of Christ himself. If we lose those communities, we also lose some contact to the Holy Scripture as well as an instrument of interpretation of those texts. Every time we lose such history, it becomes a bit harder to understand our own religion. This is what ISIS is doing right now: destroying history. Both Christian and Islamic. With every tomb of an Islamic teacher they destroy a part of interpretation history of Islam.
- [0:12:59 - 0:13:39] Father Petzold: I never felt in the right place. I had big trouble finding any job. I worked as a postman - my last job so to say. And then I went on a spiritual journey. I somehow wanted a spiritual dimension in my work.
- [0:13:39 - 0:15:35] Father Petzold: I stem from a family that abandoned religion around 1900, from a Berlin family. My entire family was politically active, so I had not much to do with the church. By accident, I ended up in Damascus and by accident as well, I travelled with a doctor to Mar Musa - originally to stay only for a weekend. Four visits later on, Father Paolo asked me to stay for a year and do spiritual research. That was 1994.The reason for my journey back then was to head to East Asia and get introduced to the different methods of meditation and Zen Buddhism. And when I was offered the one year stay at the monastery, I came to the conclusion - well, it’s a Christian monastery; the world is not perfect. One year as a postulate, three years as a novice followed. In 2000, I made my religious vows.
- [0:15:35 - 0:16:15] Father Petzold: Working with the refugees is only a temporary task. It might take a long time - we always say it’s a makeshift solution for five years. In Mar Musa, we had a makeshift roof on top of our church for 20 years - so we are used to it and know what it may imply. We have the goal of not allowing the refugees to resign and think of this arrangement as a final one.
- [0:16:15 - 0:17:31] Father Petzold: My plans are to - on day - build one of our monasteries in Iran. One that focuses dialogue of Christianity and Islam just as much as we do it here. “Harmony building” how the dear Father Paolo [Dall’Oglio] always called it. I am also very curious about Central Asia. Finally, I have arrived at the right church. This church went to China. The Chaldean church had monasteries in China, very close to Shaolin. That is all very curious to me, I am in the right church now and so I hope that I will find one day at the end of my life a final resting place near the city of Kashgar [in the Uyghur East of China].